Island Life by David Slack

What About the Workers?

I'm pretty scruffy at running a diary. It really is pathetic. I spend most of my day in front of a PC that could easily do the job. If were to I walk half a dozen paces away from the PC, I could enter the necessary information in a diary that Karren runs for everything else that's happening in our household.

These, of course, are options that are much too straightforward for me. Instead, I scrawl my appointments on scraps of paper as I'm talking to people on the phone, and let them drift about the desk over the ensuing weeks. For the most part, everything turns out fine. In the last few weeks, I've turned up on time to speak at a conference in Wellington; I've arrived with plenty of time to spare for a lunch time talk at Auckland University. I made it out to an appointment a couple of weeks ago with a friend of mine who tested my hearing and gave me the good news that my hearing is shot (but that's another story).

I'd like to be able to say the system - flimsy as it is - always works. But it doesn't. A couple of months ago, I got a call from someone at the Devonport Probus Club asking if I'd like to come and give them a talk. Sure, I said, happy to. I could talk about my new book on the Treaty of Waitangi. That sounds good, he said, and a couple of days later I got a polite letter confirming date, time and venue. I filed it carefully away near the other scraps of paper.

A week into September I suddenly thought to myself: when's that Probus club meeting? A few short minutes later I found the letter. 20th of September. Monday the 20th. 11.00 am to midday. If you're a regular listener to Linda Clark's programme, you will perhaps see the small problem I had created for myself. On Mondays at 11.45am, I'm on the wireless.

So I rang the good people at Penguin and asked if there might be anyone who would be kind enough to take a couple of hours out of their publicity schedule to talk to the Devonport Probus club. Well, actually Graeme Hunt's book is just about to be launched they said, Fintan Patrick Walsh - great subject for that age group.

Couldn't agree more, I said, could you ask him. And because Graeme Hunt is a good bloke, he was on the phone later that day to say sure, happy to help. We talked at length about the book and by the time we'd done, I was sorry I wouldn't be there to hear all about it. Thanks a lot, I said, really appreciate it, you should have a good time - these folks will love hearing all about it, I'm sure.

So I let the organiser know about the change of plan, gave Graeme the details, thought all's well that ends well, and thought no more of it - until I got a call from Graeme yesterday afternoon. I'm sorry to say the whole thing somehow got completely ballsed up. If I have this right, he'd asked if it would be okay with them if he came a little late. They'd said that would be fine. But then, when he arrived, he found that they'd rearranged the programme, dropped his slot, and moved straight on to the lunch. To top it off, he said, he got a reception that he thought was pretty rude.

I'm not sure if people always appreciate that a speaker makes quite a bit of time available when they come to give you an hour or so of their thoughts. The preparation and the getting there and back take quite a chunk of time. Graeme was, shall we say, nonplussed, and I don't blame him a bit. I can't help feeling (as Bart Simpson once famously said) somehow responsible. So by way of atonement I thought I'd alert you to his excellent book.

I grew up in a farming area that didn't have much sympathy for trade unions. The bloody freezing workers and the bloody wharfies and the bloody boilermakers were all greedy, lazy troublemakers. And half of them were bloody Poms.

Once I got to the High School in town, I discovered there was another way of looking at the argument. The thing that struck me most about industrial relations arguments through those years of the 70s and 80s was that there was an inability or an unwillingness on either side of the argument to listen to the other guy.

I don't know that things will ever really change when it comes to arguments over sharing the profits of an enterprise. Everyone knows how much they've done themselves; they tend to give less credit for what others have done.

Exploitation comes in all kinds of packages - show me an employer who expects too much for too little, and I'll show you an employee who thinks the company owes them money for sitting on their bum. Tackling those problems is never going to be easy: human nature's a tricky thing to deal with. One thing you can say about this with confidence is that it's never going to be enough to say that exploitation is wrong, and hope that people will do better.

Yesterday, while poor old Graeme Hunt was making a wasted trip to Devonport, we were talking on Linda Clark's show about Bonjour Paresse - the French publishing sensation of the summer that argues that you should by no means take your job in your large corporation seriously, and that in fact you should be actively subversive.

We touched on, but didn't explore, one aspect of the issue that I think is quite pertinent here, and that is that unions don't seem to figure largely in this particular discourse. People don't tend to see their plight as a modern employee in unionist or collectivist terms. You see yourself as able to fight your own battles, negotiate your own salary, and work your way up the corporate ladder on your own merit. The argument Bonjour Paresse seems to be making is: You're kidding yourself. You may not be being exploited like miners at the turn of the twentieth century, or factory workers in third world hovels, but neither do you have quite the clout you fancy you do.

But call in a union to help? Forget it. The whole notion of collective bargaining and union representation seems out of fashion with a fairly significant slice of the working population today. I heard Simon Collins last week talking on BFM about the open letter he and some other Herald journalists had written. (And no, there is not a deliberate Bag-the-Herald-on-Sunday theme to this week's blogging.) He was reminding people that you don't need a union when you're at the height of your earning powers, but by God, you might just feel grateful that there was a union looking out for all the members' interests when you find your health failing or some other circumstance pitching you prematurely out of the eligible workforce.

The argument for diminishing union powers over the past decade and a half has been ostensibly in the name of lifting productivity. Can't object to that. Productivity: good. Waste: bad. But fair shares and tolerance are part of the compact you need to get everyone working on some kind of sustainable basis. Calibrating that balance is never as simple as ideologues on either side of the argument would have you believe. What we went through in industrial relations over the twentieth century is a fascinating story, and there's plenty yet to be recalled and analysed about the whole experience.

Fintan Patrick Walsh was one of the most fascinating of all the characters in that story, ranging all the way from what he may or may not have done in the roiling North American labour struggle, on to a change of name when he fetched up here in New Zealand, all the way through to the matter of being a union leader and running one of the largest dairy herds in the southern hemisphere, and managing to negotiate the political challenge of heading the New Zealand labour movement and opposing the waterfront strike.

And that's just for starters. Get Graeme Hunt's book (Title Black Prince, Publisher: Penguin), and you'll find there's a whole lot more to the story. You should by all means go out and get a copy, and if you hear that the author is making an appearance, I can't recommend strongly enough that you get along to hear him speak. If it's at all possible, tell him I sent you.